DETROIT — Thursday night, with their playoff lives on the line, the Detroit Tigers survived behind the kind of indelible performances they will discuss here, on assembly lines or tipping back pints of Bell’s, for years to come.
Justin Verlander, their ace, threw more pitches in a playoff game than anyone in eight years. Delmon Young, the slugger swinging through a strained oblique muscle, smashed two home runs. Alex Avila, the catcher playing on one good knee, squatted for nine more innings, drilled a homer and afterward said: “I don’t think it’s anything special. It’s what we do.”
The most important contribution of all, though, may have come from an inanimate object. The decisive rally in the Tigers’ 7-5 victory over the Texas Rangers in Game 5 — a win that sent the American League Championship Series back to the Lone Star State — began when the baseball gods smiled upon Detroit. A chopper in the sixth inning hopped off third base and sparked a four-run inning. The Tigers survived on their toughness, and they won on luck.
“I have that bag in my office right now,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. “And that will be in my memorabilia room at some point in my life, I can promise you.”
The bounce off third base sparked an offensive explosion that included a natural team cycle — a single, double, triple and home run all in a row, the first in 1,319 postseason games. It saved the Tigers’ season and put the game back in Verlander’s hands, right where his team wanted it.
With Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit — the Tigers’ top two relievers — unable to pitch, Verlander threw 133 pitches in 71 / 3 innings, the most since Mark Prior threw the same number for the Chicago Cubs in a 2003 NL Division Series. He hit 102 mph in the fifth. He struck out Josh Hamilton with his 120th pitch.
His final fastball zipped at 100 mph. The problem was it traveled faster going out, launched into the left field seats by the scalding Nelson Cruz, who set a championship series record with his fifth homer.
“Made a mistake to a hot hitter,” Verlander said. “I feel good. I’ll be ready to go next time, whether that’s Game 7 out of the bullpen or Game 1 of the World Series. Hopefully, it’s Game 1 of the World Series.”
Cruz’s latest blast proved largely cosmetic, making the score 7-4 in the eighth, because the Tigers’ offense — which a special cameo by third base — had given Verlander room to work with.
The game moved to the bottom of the sixth tied at 2. Ryan Raburn led off with a single off Rangers starter C.J. Wilson, the most coveted pitching free agent-to-be in baseball. Up came Miguel Cabrera, who swatted a chopper down the third base line. Adrian Beltre settled behind the base, ready to snare the ball on a high bounce.
“Double play,” Texas Manager Ron Washington thought.
Just as Beltre reached for the ball, it ricocheted off third, bounded over his head and rolled into the left field corner.
“Thank God,” Cabrera thought.
“Score,” Raburn thought.
Raburn raced home to give the Tigers a 3-2 lead and Cabrera slowed into second with a double. From there, they exploded.
Victor Martinez roped a line drive into the right field corner, and after Cruz missed it on a desperate dive, even the gimpy Martinez managed a triple. Young walked to the plate and crushed a home run into the bullpen behind the left field fence, his second of the game. Before Game 1, the Tigers thought Young would not play this series. He sat out Game 3. Now, his second homer of the night had put the Tigers up, 6-2.
“I’ve been able to get my timing the past couple games,” Young said. “It goes in and out. Sometimes, it feels worse. It depends on what I actually did during the day.”
The outburst came only after the Rangers put Verlander on the ropes. In the fifth, with two on and two out, Verlander threw Beltre a hissing fastball. Beltre poked it down the third base line, bending from fair ground toward the foul pole. The ball sliced just foul.
“I looked up [at the radar] and it said 102,” Verlander said. “Thank God it wasn’t 101.”
In the sixth, the Rangers loaded the bases with one out after Verlander walked No. 9 hitter Mitch Moreland on four pitches. The Rangers had forced him to throw 33 pitches in the fifth, and now they had a chance to break into Detroit’s thin bullpen.
Ian Kinsler, though, grounded the first pitch to third. Brandon Inge grabbed the ball, stepped on third and fired across the diamond for an inning-ending double play. Verlander pumped his fist so hard he should perhaps be credited with 134 pitches.
“Exactly how I would have drawn it up,” Verlander said.
The heart pounding did not cease until the final out. Without his bullpen’s back end, Leyland chose lefty Phil Coke to relieve Verlander. The Rangers scored one run off him in the ninth and brought the go-ahead run the plate in the form of Mike Napoli, one of the hottest hitters of this postseason. Coke induced a groundout to second base. The crowd sighed. The plane to Arlington, Tex., revved.
“I didn’t want to be the reason why we were packing up to go home,” Coke said. “That wasn’t okay with me. I don’t want to go home yet. I’m not ready to go home yet.”
Neither are his teammates, most of whom line up in the trainer’s room daily. “Alex Avila might be hurting as much as any of them,” Leyland said. Avila spends a half hour before and after games receiving treatment and pops daily anti-inflammatory pills. The Tigers had not managed a hit off Wilson when Avila came to the plate with one out in the third inning. Avila swatted a home run to the opposite field, then hobbled around the bases.
“You just deal with it,” Avila said.
The Tigers are bruised and still desperate, but they are still playing, still resolute they can win.
“They have the control of the series,” Martinez said. “What kind of pressure can we have? The only thing we have to worry about is coming to the ballpark. At this point, anything is possible.”